After the first round of the Chicago mayoral election, the Windy City faces the starkest ideological choice in at least 40 years. Paul Vallas, who took 34 percent of the vote, ran as right-leaning a campaign as a contemporary urban Democrat can do. He promised more police, more charter schools, and greater fiscal responsibility. His opponent, Brandon Johnson, who took 20 percent of the vote, ran on raising taxes, advocates criminal-justice reform, and is a former paid agent of the teachers’ union— fittingly enough, because public-sector unions have dominated the Left in Illinois to a greater extent than anywhere else in the country.
Though Vallas was the top vote-getter in the first round, six of the other seven candidates also claimed to be progressives of one flavor or another; among them, they split 36 percent of the vote. Still, several considerations point in his favor.
For Johnson, the runoff may take place in an unfavorable political climate. Defunding the police, which he has supported, is unpopular in a city experiencing high and rising crime. Hiking taxes hardly seems sensible when corporations are already fleeing the city. Johnson has retreated from some of the most radical statements he made during the George Floyd unrest in 2020. But they will be replayed during the campaign, and his disavowals will make him seem opportunistic.
While the money and enthusiastic support of the teachers’ unions helped Johnson in the first round, his identification with the union could prove a double-edged sword in the runoff. The long teachers’ strike in 2019 inconvenienced many parents, who remain unhappy with the prolonged Covid school closures, for which the union was largely responsible.
Which way will supporters of the third- and fourth-place finishers, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chuy Garcia, break? Though both candidates are progressives, there’s reason to think many voters will be up for grabs. In the last two years, Lightfoot has tacked rightward in an attempt to address rising crime; she strongly opposed police defunding. Garcia was the only Hispanic candidate in the race, and some of his supporters were likely driven more by ethnic pride than by ideology in a city where voting often breaks down along racial lines.
Finally, one should not discount the importance of national politics. Voter behavior is a complex combination of self-expression and self-interest. When Donald Trump was president, voting for a progressive like Lightfoot was a requirement for virtuous gentry liberals. It did not seem costly, because despite the long-term fiscal woes of the state and city, conditions in Chicago were superficially tolerable for those living in nice neighborhoods. Today, however, crime has bled into these parts of the city, and important companies have decamped. Expressing one’s progressive self-image via the ballot box has become a costlier proposition. Many elite liberals thus are likely to support Vallas, if quietly. The business community, too, will view Johnson as a threat. Vallas should enjoy ample funding to air his message on safety and educational opportunity.
Vallas therefore begins the general election campaign as a narrow favorite. But Johnson is an energetic campaigner, while Vallas, nearly 70, is less spry and less articulate. And even if he wins, he’ll face great obstacles in keeping his promise of making Chicago the safest city in America. The state’s attorney in Cook County has given up on serious prosecutions for all but the most egregious shoplifting, harming shopping districts like the Magnificent Mile. The state legislature, with Governor J. B. Pritzker’s enthusiastic support, is poised to end the bail system. Nonetheless, a Vallas victory would send a message to the rest of the country that even in liberal cities, order under law still commands the political heights.
Photos by Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images (left) / Scott Olson/Getty Images (right)